He was the youngest General Secretary of the UCW in 1992 and was also a Director of Unity Trust Bank plc and a member of Ruskin College Oxford Governing Council.
When the Union of Communication Workers and the National Communication Union merged in 1995, Alan became Joint General Secretary.
He was elected Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle in 1997, and made his maiden speech about trawlermen's compensation.
He became PPS to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1997, a year later was PPS to the Paymaster General and in 1999 was promoted to the position of minister for competitiveness at the Department for Trade and Industry.
Following the 2001 General Election, Alan was promoted to Minister of State for Employment Relations and Regions, at the DTI and Industry was added to his portfolio in 2002.
In the 2003 reshuffle Alan was appointed Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Higher and Further Education, at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). It was in this role that he helped to steer legislation introducing tuition fees onto the statute books arguing that in 40 years of free higher education the social class gap had widened rather than narrowed.
In 2004 Alan was asked by the Prime Minister to become a Cabinet Minister taking on the role of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
After the election Alan became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and when the Prime Minister announced a major reshuffle to his cabinet in 2006 Alan was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Skills.
He came second to Harriet Harman in the 2007 contest for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Then in 2007 PM Gordon Brown made Alan Secretary of State for Health.
Two years later, Alan was appointed Home Secretary and shadowed this position for five months following Labour's defeat in the 2010 General Election.
In October 2010 Ed Miliband, the newly elected Leader of the Opposition, asked Alan to serve as his Shadow Chancellor, a role he carried out until his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet for personal reasons in January 2011.